The fact that brass players around the world can’t agree about vibrato is a good thing, we are all different and we will all play differently. This is, however, a time when many players throughout the world are striving to achieve a sort of computer-readout result in their performance, sounding perfect in every way; that’s not a bad thing certainly, but perfect just isn’t good enough, what makes us special comes after we can play perfectly. How do we discriminate who is best after we have heard ten perfect players? Of course, it’s the individualism, the musicality, and vibrato is an important component in the make up of that individualism.
Our personal preference for vibrato is unique, more so than any other aspect of our musical personality; it’s as individual as our fingerprints. Ironically, most brass players generally don’t use vibrato most of the time, especially, the lower instruments and more especially, tuba. However, to make a decision simply to use no vibrato at all would be sadly limiting ones complete musicality. Like a beautiful resonant pianissimo, vibrato can be a factor that can separate a great player from a very good player; we hear this clearly at the many competitions that are held through North America, Europe and Asia.
Like many aspects of brass playing, vibrato in the last few decades could be clearly identifiable by nationality; it was not difficult to guess whether a player was French (very fast), British (alla brass band), Italian (quasi vocal), American (secretive and low profile) or German (no vibrato at all). All these tendencies, however, are neither right or wrong, ones vibrato is a matter of choice adjusted to ones individual musical tastes and environments.
There are several ways to make a vibrato: Slide vibrato, which is very beautiful and effective but exclusive only to trombone, Hand vibrato, done moving the whole instrument; this works very well for trumpet but, very frankly, looks obscene when tried with tuba, Breath vibrato, done by oscillating the air pressure while playing is another choice; sometimes this can sound effective but it’s problematic because it interferes with an even stable air supply, which is such an important aspect of lower brass playing. The most successful vibrato for euphonium and tuba is jaw vibrato (sometimes called lip vibrato), this is done by moving the jaw up and down in a ya ya ya ya motion. As well as slightly modifying the intonation in the way finger vibrato does on a string instrument, it also modifies the vowel sound (timbre). The final result with lip vibrato is a combination of both an intonation and timbre vibrato.
Next in the choice of vibrato process is the speed and the width (velocity and amplitude) of the vibrato. There are examples of many types of vibratos that are very interesting but perhaps not good choices for modern brass playing, such as the charming, soulful and very rapid vibrato of the great French chanteuse of the last century Edith Piaf, or the very wide exotic vibrato, sometimes wider that a major third, heard from many of the traditional Japanese singers.
Learning the mechanics of vibrato is not difficult: Choose a mid register note and simply move the jaw in an up and down in the ya ya ya motion. Do it first in quarter notes, then eighth notes, triplets and finally sixteenths. Next, start slowly and accelerate until you discover what seems best for your personal tastes. The most important part of the vibrato learning process is listening, listening to singers, woodwind players and string players and especially listening to singers and instrumentalists who are singing and playing in the same tessitura as your own instrument. Finally, recording and listening to yourself and adjusting until what you hear is the vibrato you want.
There are two interesting observations in this intonation/timbre oscillation process that we call vibrato. First, we find that usually the music will sound more alive if the upper cycle of the vibrato is emphasized a little more than the lower cycle. For example, if one plays around 60% above and 40% below the result will bring more life to the music, especially regarding lower instruments. When vibrato favors the lower cycle the results can become depressing. Secondly, vibrato speed need not be constant, a faster vibrato in the higher register and slower in the low register may bring more musical results.
Finding ones personal vibrato is a major step to becoming a complete musician, however, there can be many variations in a single person’s individual vibrato. I recall a cello recital of the great Mistislav Rostoprovich in 1962, during my days with the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, when Maestro Rostoprovich used many varieties of vibrato with seemingly endless variations in both amplitude and velocity throughout his program. I also recall many great singers changing the speed and intensity of their vibratos through one single note; very dramatic when used in the right place in the right way.
Vibrato is a very very personal thing. It’s a wonderful tool; use it well.
January 3, 1913, Tokyo